Divorce talks: EU negotiator Michel Barnier. Picture: REUTERS
Divorce talks: EU negotiator Michel Barnier. Picture: REUTERS

Brussels — The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator highlighted the depth of the division between the two sides by accusing the UK of reneging on promises over its divorce payment on Thursday.

"I’ve been very disappointed by the UK position as expressed last week, because it seems to be backtracking on the original commitment of the UK. to honour its international commitments, including the commitments post-Brexit," Michel Barnier said in Brussels on Thursday. "There is a moral dilemma here; you can’t have 27 paying for what was decided by 28."

There’s a huge question mark hanging over what the UK should pay when it leaves the bloc in March 2019. Britain believes it’s only legally obliged to pay its annual membership fee until departure and some say the amount should depend on what market access it enjoys in the future. The EU’s position is that the UK is bound by its past obligations that stretch beyond its departure date.

The problem needs addressing — and soon — before the EU summit in exactly six weeks when leaders will decide whether "sufficient progress" has been made to allow discussions on future trade links.

The two sides will probably be stuck through October, Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, said on Thursday. "Given the current state of play of negotiations and the current position of the UK, it would seem very difficult that sufficient progress can be achieved by October," he said.

The test on progress will be applied to other thorny topics surrounding Britain’s withdrawal, including how to keep an open Irish border. A frequent refrain of Brexit Secretary David Davis has been for the EU to exercise more imagination and flexibility.

Oh please

Barnier was not impressed last week when asked about it: "To be flexible you need two points, our point and their point. We need to know their position and then I can be flexible."

On Thursday he said: "What I see in the UK’s paper on Ireland and Northern Ireland worries me. The UK wants to use Ireland as a kind of test case for the future EU-UK customs relations. This will not happen," he said.

Earlier on Thursday, Davis gave the most detailed description of what that period would look like — if the EU approved it — telling legislators in London that he envisaged an arrangement "as close as possible to the current circumstance".

He nevertheless ruled out Norway-style membership of the European Economic Area or joining the European Free Trade Association, which includes Switzerland. The EU has warned that the only option on offer will be a temporary extension of the existing rules.

"We are awaiting specific requests and proposals from the UK which we will examine," Barnier said. "The UK needs to tell us what it wants and we will see what is possible, what is acceptable while respecting the rules determining the way in which the single market works."

Bloomberg

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